By Larry Herman, August 24, 2019
Are we Listening?
Diane and I just returned from a family cruise to Alaska to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. It was wonderful. Seeing the massive glaciers as they meet the sea is breathtaking. I hope that those of you who have not yet done so, will have the opportunity soon. Don’t wait.
This trip left me exhilarated and filled me with awe and appreciation for the handiwork of God and nature. But it also left me just a bit more depressed, as I become increasingly convinced that my generation of that of my children may well be the last to experience these wonders.
On our Alaska cruise we visited Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in North America, stretching back more than 75 miles, 7 miles wide at its face, and 600 feet tall. This glacier flows at a rate of about 1,000 feet a year, that’s almost three feet a day. In fact it is one of the few glaciers that is growing. There are more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska and 95% of them are thinning, receding and shrinking, most of them at an increasing rate. It was shocking to watch the time-lapse video of the Mendenhall Glacier as it recedes and to see the maps showing the 65 mile-long expansion of Glacier Bay as its feeding glaciers have retreated.
This phenomenon is happening all over the world. Scientists predict that by 2070 Glacier National Park in Montana will be Glacier free.
Perhaps you saw on the news last week that a glacier in Iceland has disappeared. A lake now takes its place. It was a relatively small glacier, but scientists say that in 200 years every glacier in Iceland will follow suit due to climate change.
While in Vancouver we visited the Maritime museum there and saw the St. Roch, the first ship to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east in the 1940s. Now freighters and even cruise ships successfully sail through these once permanently frozen waters.
Just before we left for Alaska I saw a news story showing the accelerated melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, something that scientists thought would not happen until 2070. And then I saw another story about how scientists are concerned about a domino-like collapse of parts of the Antarctica Ice Shelf, by far the world’s largest store of fresh water
There is little dispute in the scientific community that all this melting and heating of the oceans will lead to accelerating rises in sea levels. To put this in perspective, since 1900, sea levels have risen by about 7 inches. Scientists now predict that by 2100 sea levels will most likely rise by three more feet, but that accelerated ice sheet melt could raise this to almost 9 feet. Miami, New Orleans, parts of New York, and Tel Aviv will be underwater or subject to massive flooding. This will happen in the lifetimes of your grandchildren.
Of course, loss of ice and rising sea levels are not the only effects of anthropogenic climate change. Scientists tell us that average temperatures will continue to rise, winters will get milder, rainfall and snowfall patterns will change, droughts and heat waves will be more prevalent and severe, hurricanes will become more frequent, intense, and longer.
We’re already experiencing the effects. While not every fire is directly attributable to climate change, who can doubt that the tragic fires last year in northern California or right next door in the Santa Monica Mountains weren’t exacerbated by global warming.
And speaking of fires, right now the Amazon is burning. This is important because the Amazon rain forest absorbs a huge amount of the CO2 that is a leading cause of global warming. While the fires are not directly the result of climate change, they can give us an insight into some of its causes, and perhaps an insight into some solutions. To explain, allow me quote at length from a Facebook posting by a Brazilian friend of ours, Gustavo Niskier. Gustavo and his family lived in Mozambique for about three years and were active members of our shul there. Gustavo wrote:
This post is for you who are outraged by the burning Amazon.
I am glad to see all this concern for the destruction of our forests. But it is curious that most of the public think that the Amazon is being destroyed for no reason by others, and that they have no responsibility for what is happening.
Sorry to ruin your appetite, but that’s not exactly true.
The Amazon is burning in order to open pastures and areas for grain production. It’s that simple. 60 to 70% of deforested areas of the Amazon are used for livestock, creating new pasture land. Even more disturbing, 50% of the world’s grain production is used for animal feed (mainly beef production). In Brazil this number exceeds 60%.
Do the math. The Amazon is burning to support your meat-eating habit.
It is not rational or logical to rage against the destruction of the Amazon and maintain a meat-eating habit that increases the demand for new areas for meat production.
It’s time for us to understand that we are accountable.
Want to see the Amazon stop burning? Easy. Reduce the demand for animal products – especially beef. Reduce demand and our forest is saved. Nothing could be easier, nothing could be simpler.
With each meal you can make a difference. You have the opportunity to make daily choices that will lead to a true transformation in the way we take care of our forests. If you are not ready yet to make the transition to a vegan life, consider vegetarianism, pescatarianism, eliminate red meat from your diet, or even reduce meat consumption gradually.
Be part of the great transformation underway today and together we can reduce the destruction of the Amazon and forests elsewhere.
Interestingly, Gustavo’s words echo my own when I spoke about kashruth and vegetarianism in a drash on parshat Shemini last year. For the record, Diane and I are in the process of transitioning.
I’m happy to report that there is a Jewish connection to all of this. Countless sites and on-line articles refer to Jewish environmentalism, most of them selectively citing Tanach. My favorite text is from Psalm 148, lines that I recite aloud every morning to the annoyance of most of my fellow minyanaires:
אֵ֣שׁ וּ֭בָרָד שֶׁ֣לֶג וְקִיט֑וֹר ר֥וּחַ סְ֝עָרָ֗ה עֹשָׂ֥ה דְבָרֽוֹ׃
הֶהָרִ֥ים וְכָל־גְּבָע֑וֹת עֵ֥ץ פְּ֝רִ֗י וְכָל־אֲרָזִֽים׃
הַֽחַיָּ֥ה וְכָל־בְּהֵמָ֑ה רֶ֝֗מֶשׂ וְצִפּ֥וֹר כָּנָֽף׃
Fire and hail, snow and smoke, storm wind that performs His command,
The mountains and all the hills, fruit trees and all the cedars,
Wild beasts and all the cattle, crawling things and winged birds.
But let’s face it, you don’t usually associate environmentalism and concern for climate change with major Jewish social causes.
I was pleased to find a 2015 Rabbinic Letter on Climate Action, initiated by seven leading rabbis including our own Elliot Dorff. The letter was signed, at the time, by 425 Rabbis. It got a lot of press and you all probably know more about than I do – what can I say, I was in Mozambique.
The first thing that pleased me is that their first scriptural reference was to the very lines from Psalm 148 that I love so much. Hey, I’m in good company. I also especially liked the introduction of the letter:
We come as Jews and rabbis with great respect for what scientists teach us – for as we understand their teaching, it is about the unfolding mystery of God’s Presence in the unfolding universe, and especially in the history and future of our planet. Although we accept scientific accounts of earth’s history, we continue to see it as God’s creation, and we celebrate the presence of the divine hand in every earthly creature.
The letter goes on to explain the Torah connections to the natural world and man’s guardianship of it. It acknowledges clearly the science-based description and explanation of the problem. They ask “whether the sources of traditional Jewish wisdom can offer guidance to our political efforts to prevent disaster and heal our relationship with the Earth.” Their answer is “Yes” and they conclude that “justice and earthiness cannot be disentangled.”
They “call for a new sense of eco-social justice – a tikkun olam that includes tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet.” And then they suggest several ways for individual Jews and their institutions to address “our own responsibility” by moving our money from spending that burns our planet to spending that helps to heal it. They also advocate, rather softly political action.
I like it. It’s a bit too America-centric and not very concrete on the political action side, but I like it. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have, read it again. And if our movement has an official position, let me know.
My goodness, I haven’t even begun to talk about the parsha!
It’s all there, in the second paragraph of the Shema. Chapter 11, verses 13 through 21 of this week’s parsha. You say it twice a day (ok, maybe once a week for some of you). But are you listening? I wasn’t, until perhaps 20 years ago Diane made me hear. More recently, I came across an interpretive translation really made me hear. I’d like to share it.
והיה אם שמע
A Prayer in a Time of Planetary Danger
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
If you hush’sh’sh’sh, truly hush’sh’sh’sh
To hear my Name, yes to hear and to listen —Adonai, the name;
If you Breathe in my quiet,
Interbreathe with all Life
Still small Voice of us all —-
|You will feel the Connections;
You will make the connections
And the rain will fall rightly
The grains will grow rightly
And the rivers will run
So you and all creatures
Will eat well in harmony,
Earthlings / good Earth.
הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם,
|But if you break the One Breath into pieces
If you erect into idols these pieces of Truth,
Bowing down to Big Oil, to Big Coal –
If you heat my Breath with your burnings —
וְחָרָה אַף יְיָ
|Then my Breath will flare up into scorching,
The corn will parch in the field,
The poor will find little to eat,
And my Breath, my Wind, Holy Spirit
Will become a Hurricane of Disaster:
Floods will drown your cities,
My Wind will tear down your Power.
וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה
וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒
|What must you do?
Connect what you see with your eyes
To what you do with your hands.
Look with joy and respect
On the threads of connection
That you tie as fringes
On the edges of your self.
Smooth Mountains of Power
Into valleys of abundance.
Turn to sun and My Wind
To empower my people.
Make My breath amidst you
A Hurricane of justice —
Then the grass will grow,
The forests will flourish,
And all life will weave the future in fullness.
|Then eysh and mayim,
Will join in shamayim:
Fire and water,
No longer in battle,
Will each find its place
In the balance of Earth:
The heavens will clear
And your lives will be lived
in heavenly joy.